For any aspiring blues guitarist, the first artist to study is Robert Johnson, and the first song to listen to and learn is Johnson’s “I believe I’ll Dust my Broom” recorded in 1936. This song is the quitessential 12 bar blues guitar song, containing many of now classic blues guitar song constructs and techniques that even a casual blues listener will immediately recognize, and has been copied untold numbers of times. Johnson plays this song in the key of E, using fingerpicking – although it sounds like two guitar players are playing, it really is just one player.
Early Life and Upbringing
Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi on May 8, 1911, to Julia Dodds, who was married to Charles Dodds, but the biological father was Noah Johnson. Robert had an unstable childhood living at times with Charles Dodd who had separated from his mother, and at other times with his mother, but managed to get a decent education and married sixteen year old Virginia Travis at age 18. Unfortunately Virginia died soon after during childbirth.
Active Performing 1929 – 1938
Johnson became a traveling performer in the Mississippi river delta area, playing on street corners and at store fronts for loose change. In 1936 Johnson made several recordings including the songs “Kind Hearted Woman Blues”, “Cross Road Blues”, “Come on in my Kitchen”,”Terraplane Blues”, and “I believe I’ll Dust my Broom”. Johnson died on August 16, 1938 near Greenwood, Mississippi. Although there is controversy, it is believed he was accidently poisoned with scrychnine in a bottle of whiskey that was offered to him, but the poison was intended for someone else.
Legend of how Robert Johnson got his talent – a deal with the Devil
The movie “Crossroads” released in 1986 was inspired by the legend of Robert Johnson’s deal with the Devil, where Johnson sold his soul in order to get his musical talent. According to the legend, Johnson had such a desire to be a great musician that the Devil himself took notice and “compelled” Johnson to take his guitar to a crossroad near a plantation at midnight. There, the Devil took the form of a man who took the guitar, tuned it, and played a few songs. When the Devil handed Johnson his guitar back, that sealed the deal – Johnson got the talent in exchange for his soul.
Robert Johnson’s Enduring Influence
Johnson is listed as a big influence by many well known blues and rock artists such as Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Steve Miller, and many more. Many more details about Robert Johnson and his legacy can be found at https://www.robertjohnsonbluesfoundation.org/.
Top Five Songs:
1. I Believe I’ll Dust my Broom
2. Sweet Home Chicago
3. Love in Vain
4. Terraplane Blues
5. Crossroad Blues
Top three albums:
1. King of the Delta Blues Singers, Columbia Records, 1961.
2. King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. II, Columbia Records, 1970.
3. The Complete Recordings , Columbia Records, 1990.